PARIS — Paris is justly lauded as the most beautiful city in the world. Nowhere else is there a greater collection of talent across the spectrum of architecture, art, literature, food, and culture. But French society also has a nasty underbelly – of growing ugliness – that should give pause to those who live amid the sparkle of “The City of Light.”
That ugliness is an unprecedented rise in anti-Semitism since the Holocaust. It comes in the form of increasing violent attacks on Jewish people, the emerging popularity of a growing right-wing political party, and a perfect storm of converging ideologies that has distinguished France from its European counterparts.
Anti-Semitic incidents in France are up stratospherically, according to information provided by Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the director of the American Jewish Committee in Paris. As recently as 1999 the number of recorded acts — ranging from graffiti to targeted arson and homicide — against Jews countrywide was, at just over 80, relatively small. Yet each of the last 15 years saw no fewer than 400 individual episodes. The methodology for reporting such incidents has remained precisely the same — only the volume of hatred has changed.
In just the first seven months of 2014, there have already been some 600 anti-Semitic incidents. Rodan-Benzaquen expects a total of about 1,500 by the end of the year. In fact, of all the crimes classified by French authorities as racist against minorities, Jewish victims represent 50 percent — even though Jews account for less than 1 percent of the country’s population.
The seriousness of these attacks can’t be downplayed. People have lost their lives.
In 2006, 23-year-old Ilan Halimi was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in Paris. A similar incident followed two years later — both motivated by anti-Semitism. In 2012, Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French citizen claiming ties to al Qaeda, killed four people — including three children, ages 3, 6, and 8 — in an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse. And earlier this year, a young French jihadist murdered three people in a Jewish museum in nearby Brussels.
All the more worrying is that, alongside this increase in violence, France’s National Front — a nationalistic, anti-immigration political party with a history of Jewish hatred — has gained ground. The party is now led by Marine Le Pen, and while Le Pen is far more politically savvy than her father, who founded and ran the party as an avowed anti-Semite, her allegiances remain coy. She has failed to distance herself from commentators like Alain Soral who loudly castigate Jews, gays, and feminists as well as the “comedian” Dieudonné, whose hate of Jews comes complete with a reverse Nazi salute that he popularized called the “quenelle.”
Across France, National Front’s popularity is at its peak. The party this year received nearly 25 percent of the total vote in the election for European Parliament — more than any other political party.
And then there are the jihadists. No European country has more recruits signing up with the Islamic State terrorist group than France, today estimated to be around 1,000. Once radicalized and trained, the danger that they pose upon their return to the country is very real.
All of the threats, taken together, bring real fear to France’s Jewish community, presently the largest in Europe. One example: Until recently, it was commonplace for Jewish families to send their children to public school. Today those same schools have few if any Jewish students. Families are choosing Jewish and even Catholic schools instead.
Many Jews are leaving France altogether. The number of emigres to Israel alone so far has doubled in 2014 from last year to about 5,500.
Upon my return to the melting pot that is the United States, I couldn’t help but realize how lucky we all are. For all our problems — and there are many — there is something that works here to connect our disparate communities to a shared goal that seems absent in Europe. For all the sparkle of Paris, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.